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Interview with Phantom Mfg's owner

Posted 08-25-2010 at 02:18 PM by PhantomCruiser

Alongside one of the piers of WideAwake International lies Phantom Manufacturing’s CEO, John L. Kirby’s private yacht, The Phantom Cruiser, in which two weeks ago was used for what might well be the world’s most posh recovery vessel. When the Nightingale performed her de-orbit burn and begin a fiery descent through the atmosphere, a company helicopter picked up the Nightingale crew and deposit them aboard the yacht. As luck would have it, we were invited along for the ride. Prior to the recovery we met Kirby and his Public Affairs Officer Victor (Hugo) Patel in the Cruiser’s observation salon and over some drinks and light refreshments, were finally granted our request for an interview.

Phantom Manufacturing seemed to appear out of nowhere, where were you hiding over the past few years?
Kirby – chuckles – We weren’t exactly hiding, Phantom has been involved in several different manufacturing processes for a while now. It’s only been in the past 4 years or so that we’ve gotten into aerospace. We started out small enough. We hold some patents on some widgets here and there that have gradually allowed us to expand to where we are now. As you’ll notice, we’ve made some progress, but we really are just new players trying to get out of the dugout and onto the field.

It’s been said that you are a very “hands-on” CEO, how much aeronautical experience have you had?
Kirby – Well, Gus (Schlauch) and I started out together at Vaught, in Nashville, that was about 35 years ago, he wound up heading to Boeing, while I stayed put. It was there that I also met Cleveland Davis, we’ve pretty much been a team since then. Cleveland wound up headed to Thiokol, and when the defense contracts started drying up, I found myself heading a chemistry lab. So while we are relatively new to the space club, I’m not a stranger to aviation and aeronautics.

How about the capitol required to start an operation of this magnitude? Is it in part based on your own finances, or do you have a group of investors behind you?
Kirby – We’ll I've fairly managed to cheese off enough of my family members to alienate myself from the “family money”. My parents had it their heads that I would be the doctor or lawyer that they wanted me to be. After I graduated and went to Vaught, I was somewhat “cut-off”. When I would up mixing chemicals they were appalled. It was only after our lab came up (and patented) with a new blend of fertilizer and I got my first million without their help, that they paid me any mind after graduation. I’m still not using any family money; I’m using either the company money, or my own for some special projects.

You mentioned the “widgets” that you’ve made money from, but you have also been known to give away some of your work. Could you explain why you would do this?
Victor – It comes down to a basic principle, if our labs come up with a way to accomplish a goal or task with a more efficient design, then we’ll patent it and offer it up for sale. But if it comes down to a safety thing that we think might benifit the entire community, then we will put it out there for everyone to see, if they want it, great, it’s there for everyone.

After visiting you offices here at WideAwake, it seems you have a unique approach to the work ethic. Could you tell us why it looks like a resort hotel rather than an office complex?
Kirby – Sure, you actually have your answer in your own question. Office complex, here we are in the middle of the Atlantic, in hurricane season no less. I'm responsible for 124 employees here on Ascension Island, plus another 96 spouses and children. Granted the mainland is an aircraft ride away, I want my people comfortable and happy. If knocking off early for a beach party takes away from the bottom line, well, the accountants can complain about it so long as it’s not their time to serve the ball. Out here it’s complex enough. Here folks can go “home” to a beach-front bungalow and have dinner with their wife and kids. Rather than talk to them via Skype from a hotel room. I mean really, which would you rather do?

You must admit that it is a somewhat odd business model…
Victor – laughing. Kirby has only ever fired one person for insubordination. He had a degree in process management, remember that guy Kirb?
Kirby – (to Victor) Yeah, the Stanford guy right. Kevin? The kid was nice enough, and he did get through the job interview with me. But he comes to me with all these pretty graphs and charts telling me how to cut costs and be more efficient. By its very nature this business is NOT efficient, there is so much oversight, quality control/quality assurance to take into consideration, that there are just some things that we cannot and will not streamline due to the safety concerns. He started to get militant about it, and then he started changing things without telling me, I got wind of it and had to put a stop to it.

Could we talk about your hiring practices? You’ve taken some heat from the unions about this.
Kirby – OK, first off, I am pro-labor. That doesn’t always mean pro-union. There is a huge difference in those two statements. The bottom line is, this is MY company. I started it, I sign the checks, I have no stockholders or board of directors to answer to. And anyone who wants to work here has me in the room asking questions during the interview. I want to hire talented people, who want to work and who have the adaptability to fit in with us here at Phantom. I’ve got no problems paying a union wage, if you ask around I think you’ll find I pay better than that, with a better benefits package. I’ve got people working here from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, I don’t care where they come from or what color they are, what matters is what can they do. And right now, with a crew on the moon, the question is, what can they do for them?
Victor – It’s true, one wall the café wall is a life-size poster of the Copernicus crew standing out in front of the habitat. In four foot high letters is “What are we doing to help?”

What about recruiting of new-hires?
Kirby – Our own employees are our best head-hunters. And I’ve got some friends scattered around numerous industries. I’m all about nepotism too, but if a kid doesn’t have the aptitude and attitude to fit in, I won’t take them, everyone here knows that. I’ll take interns from everywhere, but that won’t guarantee them a job offer, and if I can see that they’ve got some skills that someone I know can use, I’ll pass their name on. Cleveland (Davis) who’s driving Nightingale home right now, I met while he was pushing a broom at Vaught all those years ago, nobody in the company bothered to know he flew fighters for the NAVY, but he took a menial job to get his foot in the door. Here in a few hours he’ll get back from a few million mile journey around the moon. And I’d bet that when he shows up at the office for work, he’ll take his own trash out at the end of the day. The latest MIT graduating class might think they’re the best there is. But if they don’t what to do a job because they think it’s beneath them, then I don’t want them here. We are all about teamwork and open communication. And I despise “yes-men”, I want someone who’ll argue with me if I’m wrong about something, and I’m probably one of the few bosses that will actually admit when I’m wrong. I don’t mind being wrong, hell sometimes I like being wrong, and I want strong people who’ll stick to their guns when they know that they are right. That just a little bit of what I look for in a new-hire.

During our tour of your space here on the island, it looked like there was a Castor motor in the assembly building, could you tell me a little about that?
Kirby – Sure, we’ve got a contract with a few countries for them to test their anti-ballistic missile equipment on. I’ve recruited away some guys from Thiokol over the years, and we’ve put together something that resembles the old Athena program. This’ll help us out when we start doing our own rockets to LEO.

Speaking of LEO operations, what kind of projects can we expect from Phantom Mfg in the future?
Kirby – Well, we’re looking into some manufacturing possibilities in LEO, so of course a station. Along with that would be the purchase of a space-plane.
Victor – Probably more than one, we’re not sure one frame would be in our best interest.
Kirby – Vic’s chomping at the bit for this, it’ll be his project. He’s been the public affairs guy for a year now; I’m ready for him to put his engineers’ hat on and go make us something. So it looks like he might make us a space station. And it’ll be up to him to figure out how to get us there and back again. Vic, you want to make someone’s stock options go up?
Victor – grins –We may be able to talk Kirby here into spending the money to by an XR-5. But there are multiple options for a utility craft. Of course the DeltaGliderIV is a workhorse, and there is talk of MAKS being restarted. The Italians might have a clone of the HL-20 available and Loretech is coming along with a sweet looking craft that might fit our needs as well. There are a lot of options open to us.

We will be doing our best to keep track of what Phantom Manufacturing has in the works, for now we can expect another update when the next unmanned cargo ship Nancy Ward departs WideAwake bound for Copernicus in two weeks. Until then, here’s wishing all the best to the crew at Copernicus station.
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Comments

  1. Old Comment
    IronRain's Avatar
    Wow, missed this one.. But it definitely is nice!
    Posted 08-27-2010 at 05:15 PM by IronRain IronRain is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Izack's Avatar
    I wanna work for Phantom!

    You have a very nice style to these reports. They could come straight out of an article from 2060!
    Posted 08-28-2010 at 01:04 AM by Izack Izack is offline
  3. Old Comment
    PhantomCruiser's Avatar
    Thanks guys. Whenever I read this stuff back to myself though, I hear Miles O'Brian's voice from "This Week In Space". I've got notes on a whole back-story, but I've got to try to keep it short and simple. Maybe release some short-fiction later or something.
    Yeah, i'd like to work for Phantom as well. Kirby is the guy I would want to be if I were stinkin' rich. He's sort of a Elon Musk, Harvey Earl, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and (my favorite) Preston Tucker all rolled into one. But he wants to be another Howard Hughes (only without the OCD and painkiller addiction). That's why I let him have his own company, with no stockholders, just like Howard.
    Posted 08-28-2010 at 04:14 AM by PhantomCruiser PhantomCruiser is offline
    Updated 08-28-2010 at 04:16 AM by PhantomCruiser
  4. Old Comment
    CadetStimpy's Avatar
    As always a great story. Please add me to the employee list!
    Posted 09-02-2010 at 02:11 PM by CadetStimpy CadetStimpy is offline
 

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